Educator, businesswoman, civil rights leader. You see the best in others and refuse to contribute less than your very best self to any endeavor. You are an inspiration to your accomplished family, the Austin community, your alma mater Huston- Tillotson College, and your church, St. James’ Episcopal Church, where you and your late husband are founding members.
Working in cotton fields during the Depression didn’t keep you from winning a scholarship to college and earning degrees in English and education. You taught at Blackshear Elementary, Kealing Junior High and Allan Junior High. You earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Texas at Austin. You retired from the Austin Independent School District after a long teaching career. In 2002, the School District awarded you the W. Charles Akins African American Heritage Award for your character, leadership, and community service. Austin’s Young Women’s Leadership Academy bears your name.
Michael Barnes’ 2013 feature “Six generations of courage and vision from an Austin family” for the Austin American Statesman’s Ancestral Austin series, tells the story of your family’s successful efforts through persistence, hard work and confidence to rid Austin of “the last remnants of Jim Crow segregation.” When your children were not allowed to skate at the Ice Palace rink on the same day that you were denied access to a driving range on Burnet road, your anger moved you to organize. A life of discrimination and the determination to change the world for your children fired your resolve. And change happened.
You and your husband James, a member of the mathematics faculty of what is now Huston-Tillotson University, organized, picketed, and stayed the course towards the end of segregated education in Austin. You integrated the teachers’ credit union. Your daughter Patricia was the first African-American to graduate from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. Your son James, Jr. is the first African-American to letter in UT athletics. Your daughter Joan fought to desegregate Barton Springs and Zilker Park after not being allowed to swim or attend her high school senior picnic.
Since 1984, you have owned and run Austin Cab Company. You have served the Huston-Tillotson board of trustees, the Human Relations Commission, Austin Parks Commission, the NAACP, the Urban League, Alpha Kappa Alpha and the Austin chapter of Jack & Jill of America, a family organization for African American mothers. When you and a small group of Episcopalians were not welcomed in Austin’s white Episcopal churches in the early 40s, you reached out to the Diocese of Texas to found St. James’, which is now a large multi-cultural community.
“Bertha Means is a force of nature,” says your friend Judge Lora Livingston. “One minute she is leading the charge concerning an issue of civic importance, and the next minute she is organizing a black tie event for visiting dignitaries. She is admired and adored by the people she has mentored, and she continues to teach and lead by example.”
For your vision and courage, for your leadership and tremendous accomplishments, and for your dedication to education and civil rights, we are honored to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
Austin, Texas May 24, 2016